20 January, 2013
One recurring complaint of MMO players is the "grind". It's interesting taking a look at the history of MMOs, because it becomes obvious that it's mostly player perception that determines what is a grind. Every mechanic that people deride as a grind started out as something fun. In fact, sometimes it is a particularly new or novel feature that eventually becomes the dreaded grind.
Let's take a look at how something fun devolves into a grind.
Does GW2 have grind?
I started thinking about this topic again when GW2 fanatic Ravious over at Kill Ten Rats posted about dynamic events in the game. He lamented the lack of variety, particularly as he was completing the daily quests that require 5 events be completed per day. I made a comment observing that it is interesting to see how fast "something that changes the nature of the game/" has become "something optimized and ground out for achievement".
The comment got Ravious thinking and he wrote a followup post examining the grinding aspects of daily quests in GW2. He writes that he primarily plays the way he wants, but then at the end of his session he finds a way to complete his daily quest requirements. I recognized this, as I often do the same thing in the game.
And, while the daily quests might not feel quite like a grind yet, it probably will in the future. Let's take a look at a few other things that have turned from fun into a grind.
Grinding through history
Let's go to the grandaddy of the DIKU-inspired MMOs: EverQuest. When it launched, it created a sensation. People loved it. A lot of people who had not had experience with online games descended into the nascent world of Norrath and had fun with the world. The sheer breadth of the world was awe-inspiring, even to some people who had experience with online games. Few people worried about having to "grind", because everything was new and interesting. People were fumbling around, and they had fun because it was so different than previous experiences.
But, as time went on, the novelty wore off. Instead of going around adventuring, people tried to figure out the best way to accomplish their goals. They'd go to places to get the most experience per hour. Players would go camp certain locations to get gear they wanted (sometimes to sell for real money on eBay). Eventually the fun of exploring around an area was optimized into a series of specific actions, and after that we see people complaining about "the grind".
Later, you have World of Warcraft. In WoW, they introduced a new innovation: the quest log! Instead of just mindlessly killing critters, NPCs in town would direct you to places to accomplish little tasks. In fact, killing monsters was a terribly inefficient way to level. But, again, we see that people wanted to optimize the process, and Blizzard was willing to help players do so. The most notable expression of this was QuestHelper, which allowed players to figure out the optimal path to complete a quest without having to explore the zone; this system of showing where quest objectives were located was later was incorporated into the game client itself.
What makes a grind
As I've written before, the core of the grind is repetition. But, as I wrote in that article: all games are repetition. The grind settles in when you're done learning the game's patterns and everything is just an exercise in executing a known plan. Especially when you just want to get the goal and know how to get there, but all that remains is the hours of activity that you've come to see as a grind.
But, there's a step in between: optimization. Efficiency is the enemy of fun, especially in an Achiever-focused game. Optimizing means learning about the game and figuring out the best way to do things. But, so once you know the best way to do things, you get bored. Any activity that you know how to do well and that has a predictable outcome is going to be seen as a grind. The problem is that Achievers will generally seek to optimize their play, so they eternally make the game less fun for themselves.
So, perhaps you can see why I'm concerned about the optimization of dynamic events that Ravious talked about. Since camping monsters and directed questing have now become grinds, the dynamic events in GW2 were supposed to be the next evolution. But, if they're becoming optimized just a few months after launch, to the point where people are asking for more updates, this bodes poorly for them being a viable system for other games to adopt, as it seems to have the same flaw as other methods that rely on hand-crafted content.
It's also interesting to note that ArenaNet has said they're going to be changing how the dailies work in the game. Instead of having a static list, you'll be able to choose from different options that will change during the day. This should hold off on players optimizing the game exactly for at least a little while. Will it hold in the long term? I'm not sure.
How to avoid the grind
In the spirit of trying to be helpful, let me brainstorm a few ways that ArenaNet could make the dynamic events avoid feeling like a grind in short order. As always, these are made without knowledge of how their particular system is set up, and they could be irrelevant or damn near impossible to implement.
- Keep letting players just play. One very popular philosophy that ArenaNet has articulated is that players should be able to just play the way they want. GW2's daily quests are nice, because you get rewarded for doing what you'd probably already do anyway. It just takes a bit of extra effort to do a bit more at the end of your session. Trying to force players to go out of their way to do new events will probably not be very popular, even if it would make things harder to optimize in the short term.
- Make events more varied. Adding more events is the easiest way. Putting some effort into creating "template" events where details could be filled in with nearby elements might be nice. For example, the event where you escort a girl back home is pretty neat. Take this basic template and apply it to other locations. Of course, this is hard given that GW2 so heavily relies on voice acting for a lot of the events, particularly this one with the little girl's cries.
- Make events less predictable. Throw a curve ball every once in a while. Maybe have an event happen in different places instead of the same place all the time. Or have what seems like the same event, but with a different goal; sometimes you don't want to kill the broodmother drake, maybe this time you have to lure it off the path. Instead of having only one event follow up for a success/failure, maybe add in a few variations so that people doing an event more than once don't feel it becoming rote. Again, templates might work well here if the events could pull in other information from the surrounding area.
- Let events have more success conditions. One thing I like about hearts is that you often have multiple things you can do to fill up the meter. You can often kill stuff, but you can also maybe collect items, or clean up graffiti, etc. Maybe have some events where there are a few different ways to accomplish the goal.
- Improve existing events. It's frustrating when you get an escort event and you fail because this particularly one won't let you revive the escort, like the others. One in particular happened to me last night as I was finishing up Fireheart Rise: I got a bit ahead of the escort and got trapped in a wall when the ceiling collapsed. Enemies surrounded the escort and killed it, making me fail the quest. Sucks when the environment causes you to fail instead of your own actions.
- Have solo solutions to group events. It's really unfortunate when you have a group event happen in what feels like an empty zone. Bosses intended for groups will eat you alive if you get too close. Solo events seem to scale up nicely when multiple people show up, why not let group events scale down if only one person is in the immediate area? A few events do this already, where you can go trigger some NPCs to help you. A few more clever things like this would be nice. This would allow more players to experience more events.
So, what are your thoughts? How do you think that ArenaNet could do to make dynamic events feel less like something to optimize and therefore feel like a grind? What about avoiding grinding in general?